Transforming Regional Law Firms
03.24.2015
Dana Nalbantian in Workplace Design, law firms

Brach Eichler LLC. Image © Chris Leonard

As work becomes more collaborative and firms recognize the importance of presenting a cohesive and dynamic brand to clients and potential clients, the behemoths of the legal industry have taken it upon themselves to hire design firms from large markets to retool their workspaces.

The attention paid to such renovations is certainly justified, but the conversation is not limited to law firms with a national footprint. Regional firms, many of which domicile themselves in suburban office parks, are also recognizing the importance of transforming their workspaces into business drivers and brand emblems. Of course these firms don’t always have as much capital to budget towards renovations, and they can’t rely on a national headquarters to foot the bill. They have to be a bit choosy about what to undertake as well as what design firm to hire. This doesn’t, however, mean they have to sacrifice quality or scale back workplace ambitions. By relying on design firms more closely attuned to their particular needs they can remake their offices in cost efficient manners that deliver measurable business results.

The key to reimagining a law firm is a selective eye and an understanding of what spaces within an office are most important to the firm’s business. Spending money on remodeling client-facing spaces tends to yield a far greater return on investment; outward facing spaces that communicate brand and offer a welcoming environment go a long way to attracting new business and retaining existing relationships. What so many firms don’t realize is that the lease agreements may require landlords to cover the cost of certain renovations. That’s not to say employee workspaces aren’t important—on the contrary they must support how lawyers, paralegals and other staff go about daily business. Balancing areas for focus while infusing collaboration is one of the trends.

Brach Eichler LLC. Image © Chris Leonard

Roseland, New Jersey-based Brach Eichler is a prime example of a firm that undertook a smart and effective remodel aimed at enhancing its brand. When this multi-disciplinary law firm was looking for a new workspace, they asked to Gensler to provide test fit studies for four buildings under consideration. Ultimately, they decided to stay put and renovate, so our Morristown office helped them craft a lease agreement that outlined what tenant improvements would be covered by the landlord. We also proposed a few base upgrades, including new common corridor finishes. With the primary design goal of enhancing the client experience, our design team repositioned the existing reception to align with the elevator lobby and established a stronger presence in the building. We also included a conference center in the client-facing center and added a high-density filing room to centralize filing. Several offices were repositioned in order to enlarge the footprint of the paralegal desks.

Brach Eichler’s former workplace did not accommodate future growth, and it certainly did not support the needs of the paralegals. The firm now has room to expand and has work areas conforming to the needs of staff members. And the firm was able to pass some of the cost onto the landlord per the existing lease agreement.

McManimon, Scotland, & Baumann, LLC. Image © Jessica Chernoff

Another example of a firm that recently undertook a strategic workplace refresh is McManimon, Scotland & Baumann. This firm is one of New Jersey’s premier legal entities when it comes to representing government and private sector clients. After four decades of calling Newark home, MS&B decided to relocate its principal office to Roseland. Doing so would place them closer to the Roseland courthouse, leverage a concurrent re-branding effort and afford the opportunity to occupy a new space emblematic of the company’s pioneering spirit.

At the new office, guests are greeted with a large reception area flanked by glass fronted conference rooms that through the use of architectural lighting, finishes and furniture, create the feeling of a much larger, cohesive space. The staff pantry and attorney lounges reside behind conference rooms on either side providing convenient access to food service and common spaces for the staff to build community. Like many firms of their category, MS&B required standard Partner and Associate offices along the perimeter of the space complimented by expansion offices on the interior for future growth. A generous corridor runs the full length of the building, framing the views of lush foliage beyond which administrative assistants, support staff and paralegals all have sight of from their workstations. Together with the use of glass at conference rooms a visual connection across the entire length of the plan is established, creating openness as well as flexibility for attorney coverage and support. Clean, bright ceiling planes and indirect pendant lighting work in harmony with the natural daylight to create a comfortable work environment.

McManimon, Scotland, & Baumann, LLC. Image © Jessica Chernoff

Brach Eichler and McManimon, Scotland & Baumann exemplify how smart, goal oriented redesigns can breathe new life into a legal practice and position a firm for future growth and business opportunities. And by partnering with a design practice whose members are not only acclimated to the nuances of the local market but also possess an understanding of how to leverage relationships with landlords and brokers to spread the upfront investment around, the firms completed their renovations without putting themselves in a financial hole.

In the near future, I believe regional law firms that have strong ties to local communities stand to gain stature. The idea that local is better has become pervasive in all aspects of modern life, including business and the practice of law. When regional firms put themselves in workspaces expressive of the quality of the services they offer, they become better capable of competing with the global players.

Dana Nalbantian is a studio director and workplace design expert in Gensler's Morristown office. Contact her at dana_nalbantian@gensler.com.
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (http://www.gensleron.com/).
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